Alexandra Hidalgo is a documentary filmmaker, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of agnès films, a site for female filmmakers. Her current project is Vanishing Borders, a feature documentary telling the story of four immigrant women living in New York City, and she is also the director of Perfect, a documentary about middle-class Venezuelan women and the beauty industry. She is currently completing a video-book on feminist filmmaking. Photograph by Aidan Tyson.
Based on Alexandra’s video essay practice and her forthcoming video-book, I suggested that she might want to answer some of the interview questions in film form as well as writing. “A Mother’s Cinematic Peregrinations” is a gorgeous meditation on what it means to raise films not only as a mother, but also as a daughter. It weaves together filmmaking and family in exactly the ways we want Raising Films to record and support, and it adds both poetry and practical evidence to Alexandra’s thoughtful and detailed answers below.
I have modeled much of my approach to my children on my mother’s own approach to raising my brothers and me and on the feminist approach to creating anything from films to human beings.
Tell us about your multiple practices! Do you think that being both a woman and a parent inclines you to use all possible tools and routes?
I teach in the department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. Ever since the first semester of my Ph.D. back in 2008, I’ve been interested in blurring boundaries between filmmaking and scholarship, turning to feminism as the storytelling vehicle that makes those connections possible. I think of feminism as a method for doing things that then can result in feminist products. I have a variety of responsibilities as a scholar and faculty member: I make documentaries and video essays, I teach, mentor, and collaborate with undergraduate and graduate students, and I am the editor-in-chief of agnès films, an online community of women filmmakers.
In all these facets of my professional life I try to engage with others—whether I’m filming them, teaching them, or citing their work—in an ethical and productive manner that benefits everyone involved. These interactions result in work that hopefully helps those who participated in creating it and also benefits those who read, watch, or listen to it.
I became a feminist filmmaker and scholar before I became a mother. I have modeled much of my approach to my children on my mother’s own approach to raising my brothers and me and on the feminist approach to creating anything from films to human beings. I see my two sons as my husband’s and my collaborators in their own upbringing. In other words, the boys are not just being brought up by us, they are also bringing themselves and each other up, and together we want to create something that everyone involved, especially my sons, will be thrilled by. The storytelling skills I’ve gained as a filmmaker and the ethical questions I ask myself when representing others on camera and when editing footage, all those experiences help me be a more conscientious and patient mother who can look at the bigger picture when something small seems to be blowing out of proportion.
We think of Raising Films as a feminist issue: do you think that parenthood is an issue particularly for women working across media?
I interviewed legendary producer Christine Vachon for agnès films in 2014. When I asked her why she thought that women directors had a tougher time getting their projects greenlit, she replied “nobody really likes my answer why, which is because women tend to want to have children and it’s just a very bad combo. It’s very tough, you know, and most women, not all, but most women are the primary caretakers of their children, and if you’re investing 10 million dollars into a film, you don’t want to hear that the director can’t show up because her kid is sick.” Some of our readers were upset by her answer, as she predicted they would be, but she’s right. If you have small children and you want to be present in their lives, it’s hard to commit to 18-hour workdays.
I am typing up the answers to this interview with my one-year-old sleepily nursing in my arms. Most of what I have written or edited in the last year has been written in the same manner. It hasn’t slowed me down but it has changed the kinds of projects I can commit to. If the project requires extensive travel or long hours, I’m going to say no. Luckily, there are millions of film, video, and scholarly projects that don’t require those kinds of commitments, and sometimes I feel like I’m doing all of them at once, which is both exhilarating and exhausting.
Mothers can still produce films and videos, but for a few years while our children are small, we need to be more careful about the kinds of projects we commit to. As we experiment with motherhood, we can also experiment with moving images, finding new forms and stories that suit our current availability. When our children are older, we can take what we’ve learned through our new storytelling approaches and apply it to more demanding projects.
Those of us who are mothers might want to try to develop our children’s palate to consume not only big-studio production films geared toward them, but also smaller, more personal stories like the ones many of us are making.
Do you think there are feminist activist solutions to the issue? What can we do?
Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t a mother when I co-founded agnès films but now that I have children, I think a lot of what we do is the sort of activism that helps support mothers working with moving images. Publications and communities like Raising Films and agnès films that provide a platform for women to explore their creative choices as filmmakers address the issue in various ways. For one thing, a woman wanting to know whether she can be a mother and a filmmaker can read an interview like this one and see that it is certainly possible. She can also contact fellow filmmakers if she needs guidance, and when she gets her first project made, these communities can help her get the word out about it.
There’s a lot of lore about second wave feminism and the astounding infrastructure and moral support women artists had in the 70s. I used to read those accounts and feel saddened by what we’ve lost. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think we’re having our own feminist renaissance. We can now make and distribute high quality videos and films without crippling expense by turning to digital video and distributing our work online. We can also use online spaces to communicate with women we’ve never met face to face but who are doing work that speaks to us, like you and I have done for example. The way our feminist support is unfolding has changed since the second wave, but it is still here and now we can communicate with fellow feminists around the globe without leaving our homes.
Having said that, women filmmakers need more support when embarking on new projects and we need to give more visibility to the work we’re already doing. We also need to watch each other’s films and videos and to write about them on social media and talk about them in person. If the indie/small/micro-budget work is going to have the transformational impact on our culture that it can and should, we women and mother filmmakers need to start by getting the word out about each other’s work. Moreover, those of us who are mothers might want to try to develop our children’s palate to consume not only big-studio production films geared toward them, but also smaller, more personal stories like the ones many of us are making.
As you’ve researched the history of women’s filmmaking, what examples have you come across of filmmakers combining family and work?
My favorite examples of filmmakers that combine the two are the ones who turn the camera on their own families and on their own journeys as a way to join their personal and their professional lives. Agnès Varda (after whom agnès films is named), Sarah Polley, Karen Skloss, Rosylyn Rhee, and Alex Juhasz and Cheryl Dunye have all documented their own and their families’ journeys in a variety of short and feature film projects.
Not only have they chosen to tell stories that blend their family and professional lives for viewers, they have done it in loving ways. The power of their work is how clear their affection and respect for their loved ones is in the stories they tell. That doesn’t mean that they omit painful moments, but that they tell them with compassion and understanding. Their work is a strong model for me as I aim to tell my own family stories and to balance family and professional life as a filmmaker and scholar.
I know it isn’t always easy but if possible, it’s helpful to keep close ties to extended family as we try to navigate filmmaking and parenthood.
What pragmatic solutions have you found to combining parenting and filmmaking? Do you bring your children on set? Do you have childcare?
I don’t bring the children on set. I have instead turned our home into a set. Many of the films and scholarly video essays I have been making since the children were born revolve around them to some extent, so I have the camera ready (yet out of their reach!) at all times. If I see something that could fit any of the various projects I’m working on—short documentaries on my nursing journey and on bilingual literacy and features on academic motherhood, the Venezuelan diaspora, and the relationship between brothers—I pick up my camera and film. I then take that footage and add it to whatever project it belongs to. I can’t possibly complete a feature, let alone three, with the boys as small as they are, but when I’m ready, the footage is there, waiting for me.
None of my work would be possible without my husband. I have taught him cinematography and he patiently films most of the footage I appear in. He also works from home and we split childcare 50/50. If he has the boys in the morning, I have them in the afternoon, and vice versa. Not only do we both get to have professional satisfaction this way, we both enjoy the boys. We also share household chores. If one has a partner, it’s important to talk about the division of labor. In straight couples, housework and childcare often end up falling implicitly on the woman’s side, but this is something that can and should change, and constant communication is the best way to make it happen.
We also both have very strong ties to our parents and they provide great support to us and the children in different ways. I know it isn’t always easy but if possible, it’s helpful to keep close ties to extended family as we try to navigate filmmaking and parenthood.
My last bit of advice—and I also share this with academic mothers—is to work and be with the children every day (with exceptions, of course) and to do only one at a time. Meaning, if you try to play with your children and answer emails at the same time, you will do both poorly. Instead, answer emails for a half hour, and spend the next half hour playing with your children with your computer/phone/iPad in another room. Everyone will be much happier that way.
What creative solutions have you found?
I have always been interested in stories about relationships and when I turned to documentary filmmaking, I tried to focus on how our interactions with others determine who we are. When the boys were born I started exploring how my own relationship with them and my husband affects various aspects of who I am, and how their family shapes the people they’re becoming.
We’ve become accustomed to valuing stories about men’s journeys, which often involve violence and competitiveness. Everyone from the studios, to the movie theaters, to critics, to ourselves as audiences is complicit in overvaluing those stories above others. And yet, there is so much more to life than that, and as a mother I want to see stories about mothers and children, about siblings, about growing up a strong feminist whether you’re a girl or a boy. I want to tell those stories and I want to help others tell them and support them when they do.
Not only have my boys changed the way my images look, they have enriched my approach to filmmaking altogether.
Do you think that parenthood can affect film form, as well as content?
It certainly has for me. Three days after my youngest son was born, I snapped a photo of him in his car seat because the image reminded me of a photo I’d snapped of his older brother when he was the same age. When we put them side by side I was struck by how similar they looked. That image set me to wondering about what it would be like to be able to see your children as they develop side by side. As we try to compare our recollections of siblings, it’s hard to tell how much we have constructed and how much they in fact resembled each other or didn’t when they were the same age. Because I had so much footage of my oldest son, I was able to make a short film, titled William and Santiago Simultaneous, where I try to find out—at least for my children—how similar their first year of life was. I ended up splitting the screen so we can see both of them doing the same thing in their particular way at the same time.
When I started this project, I naively thought that both boys would crawl and walk at the same time, but, of course, they didn’t, so I’ve also tried to figure out how to filmically show the differences in their development. We’re still waiting for Santiago to walk so I can finish the film. If there’s one thing you learn when filming your children is that you can’t control what they’ll do on camera but should rather capture what they have to offer at that moment. That’s a beautiful philosophy to adopt, no matter who you’re filming. Not only have my boys changed the way my images look, they have enriched my approach to filmmaking altogether.